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Lawmakers, activists, pornographers haggle over the future of North America’s children

Lawmakers, activists, pornographers haggle over the future of North America’s children

The tug-of-war between legislators aiming to protect kids under 13 and activists who say their efforts curb freedoms could soon see the balance shift decidedly in favor of the law, as U.S. senators announced they had finally secured more than 60 backers for the major changes tabled in the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

Law targets “sticky” design features that incentivize potentially harmful use

KOSA is among a host of proposed laws being passed around in the wake of senate hearings that grilled Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs about the harm their platforms have done to kids. If passed, KOSA would mean major changes from the major social media players and other sites that count young people among their user base. Most notably, the law would require developers to “exercise reasonable care in the creation and implementation of any design feature,” to avoid features that aggravate mental health problems and enable bullying. It also proposes limiting retention-based design tics that can lead to compulsive behavior or increased usage time, such as infinite scrolling, dopamine-hit refreshes, notifications, and appearance-altering filters.

Less seismic, but also significant, is a limit on who minors can talk to through their online accounts.

The Washington Post reports that Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) presented an updated version of Bill S.1409 that addresses concerns about how the law could be used to stifle speech or enable targeting of LGBTQ+ youth. More than half a dozen LGBTQ groups formally rescinded their opposition to the bill in light of the refresh, which also won the support of more than a dozen new co-sponsors, including Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer and Texas Republican Ted Cruz. A statement from Blackburn and Blumenthal says significant bipartisan support “reflects the powerful voices of young people and parents who want Congress to act.”

Whether or not it will is a different story. Despite support from the highest levels – President Joe Biden is an avowed proponent – the bill can only become law with approval from the House of Congress, and several hurdles remain entrenched on the path to an agreement on which pressing tech issues should get priority. In the meantime, there are plenty of people determined to make sure their objections to the bill are on the record.

Law does kids more harm than good, say critics

In an article published by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, authors Jason Kelley, Aaron Mackey and Joe Mullin argue that, far from protecting kids from online danger, the bill itself is dangerous. Despite the amendments, they say, KOSA is “still an unconstitutional censorship bill that continues to empower state officials to target services and online content they do not like.”

A fundamental issue for the EEF is who controls the levels of power, and what their intentions are in handling them. Conservative lawmakers who oppose particular manifestations of gender, for instance, could restrict important health information. The authors of the article argue KOSA will require “an enormous number of websites, apps, and online platforms to filter and block legal, and important, speech.” But their concern centers around certain subsets of young users – in particular, LGBTQ+ at risk of being blocked from access to resources or services, young people searching for information on reproductive rights or mental health, marginalized communities, young activists engaged in online political debate, teens fighting addiction and substance abuse, and “any young person seeking truthful news or information that could be considered depressing.”

Furthermore, they say, “the legal requirements of KOSA are still only possible for sites to safely follow if they restrict access to content based on age, effectively mandating age verification” – and making restrictions on design redundant. In their view, KOSA tries to “launder restrictions on content that lawmakers do not like through liability for supposedly harmful design features. But,” the point out, “the First Amendment still prohibits Congress from indirectly trying to censor lawful speech it disfavors.”

States table and argue over online threats and verification solutions

Debate is also bubbling at the state level. In California, the digital rights group TechFreedom filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to affirm the district court’s decision blocking enforcement of California’s Age-Appropriate Design Code. In a release, the group argues that websites should not be forced to implement age verification or other so-called child-proofing measures.

“‘Protect the children!’ Internet laws may be good politics, but they’re a disaster for the children they’re supposed to serve,” says Corbin K. Barthold, director of appellate litigation at TechFreedom. “Simply put, California is pressuring users to submit to invasive data collection. By eroding online anonymity, age verification chills free speech and free association. ”

In Kentucky, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require parents to send social media companies a signed affidavit and government ID for authentication before their kids can create accounts. House Bill 450 would “establish a civil cause of action against any commercial entity that publishes matter harmful to minors on the internet without obtaining age verification.”

“I have heard too many horror stories of school-aged children being preyed upon by adults several states away,” says a tweet on X.com from Representative Josh Calloway, the bill’s primary co-sponsor. “While this bill may not put a complete stop to this atrocity, I believe it will establish a safeguard that may save lives.”

New pornographer says no to kids, law

In Canada, the age verification debate is focused on pornography, as the House of Commons considers a Senate bill that would require age verification for access to Pornhub and other pornographic content sites. In a report from the CBC, Solomon Friedman, a partner and vice-president of compliance at Ethical Capital Partners, which owns Pornhub parent company Aylo, says the site could consider blocking Canadian users if the current version of the law passes.

“We want no children on our platform whatsoever,” says Friedman, whose firm acquired Aylo in 2023. “We’re going to committee to ensure that the wrong legislation doesn’t get passed.” Pornhub has had its share of issues with content depicting child sexual exploitation and other non consensual acts, and has already blocked users in multiple states from accessing the site over verification laws.

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